Three national consumer reporting agencies, Equifax Credit Information Services, Inc., (Equifax), Trans Union LLC (Trans Union), and Experian Information Solutions, Inc. (Experian), have agreed to a total of $2.5 million in payments as part of settlements negotiated by the Federal Trade Commission to resolve charges that they each violated provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by failing to maintain a toll-free telephone number at which personnel are accessible to consumers during normal business hours. According to the FTC's complaints, Equifax, Trans Union and Experian (collectively, consumer reporting agencies or CRAs) blocked millions of calls from consumers who wanted to discuss the contents and possible errors in their credit reports and kept some of those consumers on hold for unreasonably long periods of time. The proposed settlements with each CRA also would require that it meet specific performance standards to ensure that CRA personnel are accessible to consumers.
The FCRA is designed to promote accuracy, fairness and privacy of information in the files of every consumer reporting agency. To provide consumers the ability to more easily resolve inaccuracies in their credit reports quickly, Congress amended the FCRA -- effective Sept. 30, 1997 -- to require Experian, Equifax and Trans Union to provide consumers who receive a copy of their credit report with a toll-free telephone number at which personnel are accessible to consumers during normal business hours.
"The reality is that consumers never got the access to the consumer reporting agencies that the law guarantees," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "These cases demonstrate in no uncertain terms that it's time for Equifax, Experian and Trans Union to pick up the phone and meet their obligations to consumers."
Equifax is based in Atlanta, Georgia; Trans Union is based in Chicago, Illinois, and Experian (formerly, TRW) is an Ohio corporation, with its principal place of business in Orange, California. They are the largest consumer reporting agencies in the nation. According to the FTC's complaints, while all three CRAs had established toll-free telephone numbers for consumers, they violated the accessibility requirement of Section 609(c)(1)(B) since the provision went into effect in September 1997 because a substantial number of consumers have been unable to access the CRAs' personnel when calling the toll-free numbers during normal business hours.
The complaints against Trans Union and Experian allege that since September 1997 over a million calls to their toll-free numbers received a busy signal or a message indicating that the consumer must call back because all representatives are busy. The complaint against Equifax contains a similar allegation involving hundreds of thousands of calls by consumers to its toll-free numbers. Further, each complaint alleges that a number of callers to the CRAs' toll-free numbers experienced an unreasonable hold time while waiting to speak with CRA personnel during normal business hours. Finally, the complaints against Equifax and Trans Union allege that each blocked certain incoming telephone calls based upon the location of the call, including, but not limited to, area code.
The proposed consent decrees contain specific injunctive provisions that ensure the three CRAs maintain toll-free telephone numbers with personnel accessible to consumers who receive a copy of their credit report. Each of the proposed settlements would require that the CRAs maintain a blocked call rate of no greater than 10 percent and an average hold time of no greater than three minutes and thirty seconds. To measure the CRAs' compliance with these standards, the CRAs will be required to conduct regular audits in accordance with guidelines specified as part of the settlement. Further, the proposed consent decrees would require each of the CRAs to fully comply with Section 609(c)(1)(B) of the FCRA in the future.
Finally, Equifax has agreed to pay $500,000, and Experian and Trans Union both have agreed to pay $1 million, all pursuant to the Commission's authority to collect civil penalties, as a monetary settlement of the charges.
The complaints and proposed settlements were filed in U.S. District Courts in Illinois, Georgia, and Texas earlier today by the Department of Justice on behalf of the FTC. The Commission vote to refer the matters to DOJ for filing was 4-0, with Commissioner Sheila F. Anthony recused.
NOTE: A consent decree is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. A consent decree is subject to court approval and has the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the complaints and proposed settlements, as well as two consumer brochures, "Fair Credit Reporting" and "How to Dispute Credit Report Errors" are available from the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357); TDD for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.